Zach Wahls Accuses Iowa Republicans Of ‘Authoritarianism’

Iowa Senate Minority Leader Zachs Wahls (D) in his office shortly after midnight on April 18, 2023.

By Ty Rushing

April 18, 2023

Iowa Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls (D-Coralville) accused Iowa Senate Republicans of leaning into “authoritarianism” after they refused to answer questions during a debate on their child labor bill late Monday evening.

“This is a really serious breach of tradition in the Iowa Senate and I think it marks a really sad development for the state of our democracy,” Wahls said during an interview in his office shortly after midnight.

The issue came about when Sen. Bill Dotzler (D-Waterloo) asked Sen. Adrian Dickey (R-Packwood) to yield for a question about an amendment Dickey introduced to SF 542. Dickey refused to answer the question and Democrats went to caucus.

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After Democrats returned from caucus, Dotzler again asked Dickey to yield for a question about the child labor bill and he again refused. Dotzler then asked Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver (R-Grimes/Ankeny) if he would yield for a question and Whitver also refused.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” Dotzler said after both Republicans refused to yield for questions. “I mean, is this democracy? Is that what’s going on? We’re passing bills out of this chamber for appropriations that have no numbers in [them], the public gets cut out and now the public gets cut out because I as a senator cannot ask a single question.”

Dotzler then asked for a deferral to have more time to consider the bill and leaders from both chambers huddled for a couple of minutes before Senate President Amy Sinclair (R-Allerton) resumed the session, which prompted Senate Democrats to again go to caucus.

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During that caucus, Wahls conducted an interview with reporters and accused Senate Republicans of becoming authoritarians and alleged that Whitver said members of his GOP caucus would no longer answer questions during debates on bills in light of a recent Iowa Supreme Court ruling chastising them for providing misleading information on legislation.

“Sen. Whitver told me — and I’m going to paraphrase a little bit here because I didn’t have a recorder on me — ‘We’re not going to answer questions anymore on the Senate floor. We’re done playing games,’ and then he made a direct reference to the Supreme Court case,” Wahls said of the conversation between him and Whitver.

According to the Iowa Capital Dispatch, the Iowa Supreme Court took issue with “the Iowa Legislature’s practice of ‘logrolling’ — deliberately packaging together unrelated and relatively unpopular pieces of legislation to ensure that a majority of lawmakers will support something in the bill and give the entire package their approval. The Iowa Constitution prohibits logrolling by requiring that ‘every act’ passed by lawmakers ‘shall embrace but one subject, and matters properly connected therewith.’”

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Additionally, the Iowa Supreme Court ruling said former Iowa Sen. Michael Breitbach (R-Strawberry Point) “gave inaccurate responses” and “expressed ignorance” about a 2019 bill he was managing and the organizations that backed it.

While the Court’s ruling did not issue any orders against the legislature, it appears as if Republicans are prepared to use the Court’s rebuke as justification for shutting down debates over bills.

Wahls said he and the Senate Democrats were frustrated by the ignoring of Senate norms, especially Republicans’ refusal to answer questions about bills. 

“It’s a deliberative body, that’s the whole fucking point; to ask questions and to understand the legislation that’s in front of you,” Wahls said. 

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This isn’t the first time Senate Republicans have drifted towards authoritarianism, according to Wahls.

“You have seen from the Republican majority sustained attacks on democratic norms in our state over the last seven years,” he said.

Wahls cited their decision to move the Iowa Capitol press corps from its bench in the Senate chamber after 140 years, passing blank budgets this session without public input, and now refusing to yield and answer questions about bills during debate as examples of their anti-democratic behavior.

“It’s incredibly, incredibly distressing that this is where we are at today and I think we should call it what it is, which is one step closer toward authoritarianism,” Wahls said. “That sounds dramatic, but I don’t think you can look at what they have done over these last several years and say this is anything other than a successive series of steps in that direction.”

Iowa Senate Republicans Communications Director Caleb Hunter did not respond to a Starting Line request for comment on Wahls’ authoritarianism claim.

by Ty Rushing

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  • Ty Rushing

    Ty Rushing is the Chief Political Correspondent for Iowa Starting Line. He is a trail-blazing veteran Iowa journalist, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and co-founder and president of the Iowa Association of Black Journalists. Send tips or story ideas to [email protected] and find him on social media @Rushthewriter.

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